Thursday, 30 September 2010

My Month in Novels (Sep)

Amazon Sales Advisor: Greetings, MJ! I’m Lorna, your Amazon Sales Guide. From your account, it looks like you read lots of bewks! Have you checked out our list of bestsell—

Me: Let me stop you there, Lorna. You can stick your bestsellers.

ASA: Ho-ho! Isn’t he wacky, ladies and gents? We love that impish Scottish humour! You just don’t care, do you? Ha-ha-ha!

Me: Umm.

ASA: So what did you read this month, MJ? I’m sure the people don’t care, ‘coz they reads their own bewks, but if some bewk-loving imp like yourself finds this post, maybe they’ll find something!

Me: That is my hope.

ASA: Oh, isn’t he haughty?

Me: Shut up.

ASA: Ha-ha-ha! Priceless.

Me: I read
Tom RobbinsAnother Roadside Attraction. It was—

ASA: £8.99 at Amazon. 14 used and new from other sellers.

Me: Listen, Lorna. If we’re going to do this, I’m going to need you to shut up. We have many books to get through and your incessant interruption is starting to get on my—

ASA: OK, OK! So touchy, isn’t he? What did you think of Tom R?

Me: Well, I thought the ride was exhilarating. The central thesis of the novel—God is dead and humanism rocks—was well argued, but the characterisations were flawed. Too many wacky hippies discoursing on philosophy at an advanced level. Still very funny though, and so cult it hurts.

ASA: “So cult it hurts!” Ha-ha-ha-ha! Can we put than on our consumer reviews section?

Me: No. Fuck off.

ASA: No need for that.

Me: Yes there is.

ASA: I don’t think I like you anymore, MJ.

Me: Well, you know where the door is.

We apologise for the interruption to this month’s novel round-up. Normal service will resume tomorrow.


1. Tom Robbins: Another Roadside Attraction

Tom Robbins was recommended to me aeons ago by a friend (now an occasional friend). I confess a little disappointment with Another Roadside Attraction, but the depth and range of ideas explored in the book is amazing.

I loved the ludicrous metaphors, the freewheeling insanity of language, the satirical humour and the intelligently argued discourses on the death of religion.

On a craft level, I felt the plot could have used a huge pair of scissors, and many of the characters suffered from having the same voice, or the same habit of launching into erudite philosophical treatises for no reason.

So with a little trimming this could have been a classic. It certainly packs a mean wallop and sits pretty on the bookshelves of atheists and agnostics alike.

2. REYOUNG: Unbabbling

Darkly fascinating debut (and only) novel from an odd Russian linguist styling himself with the solo nomenclature. And why not?

This novel is divided into three parts, each written in a different narrative register. The first part, "Unbabbling", is in the first person and tells of a Vietnam vet's ascension from hell to, uh, another hell. The style is furious, bile-filled and fun.

"Hell Squared" is the shortest section, and the least interesting. A po-faced story of a street criminal writhing in his own filth, it pads out the novel but is sorely lacking in irony.

"Manhole," the longest part, certainly isn't lacking in irony. It tells the surreal tale of Erde, a hard-working construction worker who stumbles upon a corporate plot to build a deadly bridge. He is blamed for the accident and thrown down a manhole as punishment, whereupon he becomes a celebrity and then gradually retreats into an underground world of striking unusualness.

This is the weirdest, fiercest novel you will never read.

3. Roberto Bolaño: Amulet

This was diverting.

4. JG Ballard: High-Rise

These Flamingo Modern Classic reprints of Ballard books are an annoyance: they are stuffed with extraneous extra material of a facile internetty nature. Read this next! If you liked this, read this next! This book is also a film! Wow! Isn't that great! Buy the film now! Read this boring interview!

Of all the new modern classic editions I've read, Ballard's books get the biggest advertising shunt. Probably because Ballard was never anti-capitalist as such: he seemed to delight in the digitisation of culture more than other speculative souls. Still. That's no excuse to turn his books into a market stall.

High-Rise is a vicious classic, though less prescient in its view of stacked accommodation. Gruesomely entertaining.

5. Flann O’Brien: The Poor Mouth

Better than a bag o' potatoes for breakfast, so it is. Its like in literature will never be seen again!

6. Various: The Book of Other People

As other esteemed reviewers have opined, this anthology fails to deliver consistent excellence, despite the all-star cast.

The best contributions are from Hari Kunzru, Daniel Clowes, ZZ Packer, Chris Ware, Nick Hornby, Miranda July & Jonathan Lethem. These stories kept my arse welded to the chair, with zero distracted fidgety impatience.

The others are merely average: fragments, unfinished doodles or tossed-off oddities. Jonathan Safran Foer, hardly a prolific short story writer, seems to have mailed in a high-school piece.

Only two stories, by A.M. Homes & Colm Tóibín, are snoozy tripe.

I don't know what to suggest, really. It is for charity. I bought my copy in a charity shop, thus contributing to two charities simultaneously. Go me.

7. Chuck Palahnuik: Pygmy

This was a clever, ingenious, risky and hilarious piece of work. I struggled at first with the barmy dialect, but it wasn't too hard to slide into the voice of this terrifyingly small terrorist once the novel picked up steam.

To make something like this work takes genius. Palahniuk is probably one.

8. Martin Amis: House of Meetings

This is the last Martin Amis novel I will ever read. Utter pants. I blame Christopher Allen for giving this one five stars and making me curious. Thanks mate.

What is it about? Who cares. Whether writing about amnesiac women, porn moguls, talentless writers, or life in a Gulag, the end product is always Martin Amis. The protagonist (a sixty-four-year-old Russian) is Martin Amis. Amis, Amis, fucking Amis.

I give up. Dude cannot write anymore. I give up, I give up, I give up. The Information is the only Amis novel worth reading. Forget the rest, Venus, forget it.

9. James Robertson: Joseph Knight

Entertaining if overlong telling of the story of Joseph Knight. This was a pivotal moment in black history: a slave is given his freedom but must live with the hypocrisies and spectres of his past.

Exemplary Scots dialect, canny plotting and humorous digressions abound. Historical novels aren't my teacup, but I was pleasantly involved despite myself. (Though 100 pages could be sliced, easily).

10. John Barth: Lost in the Funhouse

Disappointing! This "landmark" in experimental fiction was stuffed with endless exercises in indulgence, vague and rambling stories, pretentious non-sequiturs and assorted Greek gibberish.

The title piece, "Title" and "Petition" were the only engaging and amusing stories here. Most of the collection indulges in Barth's obsession with Victorian writing and Greek myth. "Night-Sea Journey," "Meneliad" and "Anonymiad" are insufferable, despite the clever tricks and (rare) flashes of wit. (The middle story plays a brain-busting game with the metafiction format, though the content sags badly).

This territory has been explored with twice the panache by Gilbert Sorrentino. Barth's work skews towards the cold and academic, whereas Sorrentino never loses his steely humanity, in spite of the high-wire games he plays.

11. Kristin Hersh: Rat Girl

This was a surprising treat! Kristin Hersh writes about the most turbulent year in her life, a year of bipolarity and pregnancy and eccentric old women, a year she would revisit in countless songs in her career.

Hersh bears her past sufferings with dignity. She writes in a unique, graceful way that never indulges in sentiment or self-pity. Her prose can be stylised at times, esp. with her bandmates' repartee, but she has a good understanding of how to keep her narrative pumping along with entertaining brio.

Among the most illuminating sections are her insights into Throwing Muses compositions: the "possession" that takes over when she plays her music. Her relationship with the old Hollywood luvvie Betty is also strange and touching.

A few details are vague surrounding her pregnancy. Her parents don't seem to lift a hand to help her, or she doesn't approach them for help, and no mention of the father is made. It is assumed she must go the whole process alone, and this detail does sort of hang there, despite any reasons of privacy.

A treat for fans. To what extent non-fans will relish this is another question, given the emphasis on the music, the specific details and so on. Who can say? It has enough charm, wit and invention to find a wider audience.

12. Gilbert Sorrentino: A Strange Commonplace

A dark, snarky triumph. This novel bristles with a brutal energy, a violent sexual malice. These vignettes are more overtly carnal in content than in Sorrentino's other "fragment" novels, and each entry is stark and bleak.

This was the last work Sorrentino saw published in his lifetime, and it acts as a lighter coda to The Abyss of Human Illusion, which isn't saying much, as these stories are painful, moving and sad in their desperation.

One for the midnight hour.

13. Gilbert Sorrentino: The Abyss of Human Illusion

And so it ends. What a remarkable career, what a remarkable novelist. This dignified, pessimistic, startling book is a fitting dénouement for a writer who has dazzled, shocked, amused, inspired and haunted me for the last year.

Forget the other bitches. Gilbert is immortal.

14. Deb Olin Unferth: Vacation

What do certain authors have against inverted commas?

"I am speaking now. You know I am speaking because this in inverted commas."

Now you do not know I am speaking unless the author uses a dialogue tag. This technique creates a sense of distance or alienation, juxtaposed with the main text blah blah blah, and on top of this, it's grammatically incorrect.

Some writers are speech mark snubbers. Don't get me wrong. I understand. I side with Vonnegut and find the semicolon hideous. This author also uses no semicolons. However. Punctuation isn't frightening. It has so many exciting functions.

So I say: Learn to love the curvy swirl of the speech mark! Aren't they rather cute when printed? Don't our brains also react to them differently, allowing us respite from the prose, keeping our visual responses varied?

See, having no inverted commas can impair a piece of work. Reading a book in one font, our eyes need punctuation as a visual stimulus away from the words. Speech marks shift the register of a scene and help us connect with a book in a different way. This stylistic trait isn't, to my eye, particularly useful.


Vacation is a McSweeney's publication, and who doesn't love the middle name Olin? If I had Olin as my middle name, I would certainly chose to publish under it. It is clear some sweat has gone into this decision. Deborah Unferth looks oddly hideous, and Deb Unferth is a little too concise. Olin is a bizarre name and so deserves credit on the cover!

Well done Deb!

I couldn't quite find the voice in this one. The narrator sounded like a stoned psychiatrist who reads poems at the Hip-Hop NY Poetry Slam, describing potential husband/wife case studies to a group of sleepy students. There are a range of narrative voices, and the register is the same in each: gently poetic, mildly comic, gropingly grim.

The structure/form is intriguing here, but the world this book presents bears no resemblance to our own. Given the reliance on lyrical observations, each pulling for an emotional response, this seems to undo the novel.

Never mind. Olin is a fabulous middle name.

15. James Young, Nico: Songs They Never Play on the Radio

A wild, irreverent romp through the darkest moment in Nico's history. OK, so every moment in Nico's career was "the darkest" but this is much darker.

Young writes with a lacerating wit, taking no prisoners as he evokes the chancers, hangers-on, druggies and lunatics touring with Nico on her 1000-date world tour.

His ear for detail, dialect, character is amazing. He evokes the sleazy degeneracy of the scene, taking us away from Nico, the dull junkie, into a wider world of nihilism and madness.

His character-assassination of John Cale is one of the most surprising moments: a lifelong Japanese fan of Cale comes to his dressing room, makes a shy speech and hands him a present. Cale tears it open. Inside is a small bottle of alcohol. A freshly-clean Cale hands it back to the girl, saying: "I don't drink."

Ouch. The legacy of the Velvet Underground, apart from the music, is a trail of drug abuse, asshole behaviour, and laughable egoism. Young rocks it home.

16. Woody Allen: Complete Prose

Without Feathers is the funniest of this trilogy, with Getting Even a close second. The other selection was great too, and I maybe should have read this in shorter bursts rather than all at once. My sides are currently damaged beyond repair.

Allen writes stories with deeper philosophical meaning. He asks searching questions that scratch through the absurdity of life, with way more laughs than Nietzsche or Sartre.

I'm catching up with his movies too. Zelig is currently sitting in my disc drive.

17. Nicola Barker: Heading Inland

Slices of life among London's various outsiders. The Wesley trio in particular is amazing.

18. Flann O’Brien, The Hard Life

Flann's return to novels since The Third Policeman was no-noed. I've often wondered how many publishers turned down the manuscript: I get the impression if he'd had a thicker skin and shopped it around the country or abroad, we'd have a fatter body of work.

Well. Never mind. The Hard Life: An Exegesis of Squalor is dedicated to Graham Greene, responsible for At Swim-Two-Birds being printed (and, to an extent, Third Policeman being passed over). This novella is a humorous piece involving a scheming brother, a cleric, and the Pope.

It is so slight, it's easy to see O'Brien clawing his confidence back. The Dalkey Archive, his last book, was a masterpiece, so once again, we were cheated of greater works from this timeless satirist.


19. Roberto Bolaño: Nazi Literature in the Americas

An alternative literary history. Bolaño holds a mirror up to the fascist blowhards canonised by the establishment with his cast of lovable Nazi sympathisers.

This is basically a book of spurious biographical details about spurious writers. How it manages to be a rip-roaring and bum-loving read is part of its magical sway. Recommended.

20. Kurt Vonnegut: The Sirans of Titan

Wow. I'd forgotten quite how amazing a writer is Mr. Kurt Vonnegut. The Sirens of Titan is his second novel, and already his voice is developed to its peak: the irony, the cynicism, the repetition, the bleakness, the heartbreaking.

This book moved me more than his other works. Something about these sad, lonely and powerless characters fighting their fates in a dark, unfeeling cosmos. It is a bleak, emotionally resonant work, far more moving than Slaughterhouse 5 or Breakfast of Champions.

You can also see how influential this book was on Douglas Adams. The Hitchhikers Guide series, one might argue, is a whimsical offshoot of this novel.

A classic. Easily in his top three novels.

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